A Serious Man movie review

The cinema was packed, and there was a buzz about the crowd – as you would expect at a pre-release viewing of a new Coen brothers movie.

The Coen boys have long been my favourite writer/directors. You know you’re in for a ride that is going to take you somewhere you haven’t been before. That there will be none of the usual Hollywood signposting, no comfortable formulae to fall back on. That however unfamiliar, however downright weird, wacky, off-beat the course they pursue and the terrain they explore, these drivers know their vehicle. So you strap yourself in and trust them to deliver. And almost always, they do.

Not this time. Not for me, at least. I just couldn’t get on to where the hell they were going with A Serious Man, and by around the half way mark, I didn’t really care. They’d worn me down to a point of fatigue that was hard to fight against. Bored in a Coen brothers movie? Afraid so.

The movie begins with a spooky little zombie fable set in a Polish shtetl (small Jewish village) in the 1800s. Acted out in Yiddish, with English subtitles, this short prologue ends on an unsettling note, then we are projected smack bang into Midwest American suburbia circa 1967, where the rest of the movie plays out.

The point of the prologue eluded me, and there are no hints given. There doesn’t seem to be any connection with the narrative proper, other than the fact that the characters in both are Jewish. Does the prologue prefigure the story that follows? No. Could there be some symbolic intent? Not that I could work out.

Stepping outside Hollywood cinematic conventions and eschewing a formulaic approach to movie making is fine – better than fine, it’s what we expect and want from a class act like the Coens – but random acts of narrative perversity? That’s indulgence, artistic arrogance even.

The main narrative is built around the travails of angst-ridden physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg – good interview here). First, there’s the Korean student who tries to bribe a term paper pass out of him, and won’t take no for an answer. Then there are his kids: daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) who raids his wallet in the service of accumulating enough bucks for a nose job, and son Danny (Aaron Wolff), who prefers smoking dope and listening to the Jefferson Airplane to studying Hebrew or preparing for his approaching bar mitzvah. Unemployable nutjob brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has installed himself on the couch and shows no signs of leaving soon. Then Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces that she is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a pompous acquaintance whom she regards as more “substantial”; he is manipulated out of the family home and into a cheap motel.

Larry’s lot gets worse – far worse. In fact, he is a modern-day Job, with his creators, the Coens, seemingly relishing their role as his tormenting Jahweh. But while they may be having fun with their victim, the audience is left scratching heads, labouring under the onerous burden of trying to work out the why behind it all.

As is Larry. Like Job, he looks for reasons for his trials and suffering, assuming that he has brought them on himself. He seeks redemption through three rabbis, but nothing works. He has done nothing to bring disaster down upon himself, and this is his problem! He has nothing to atone for, and therefore no control over his cursed existence.

There is no story arc here, no hero’s journey – only a series of ever more serious crises, with the movie sputtering out in the looming shadow of even greater catastrophe.

Indeed, the final scene almost makes this otherwise frustrating and baffling film worth sitting through. I won’t spoil it by divulging details. I will say that the closing image is immensely powerful and is still haunting me days later. It speaks of the disasters and threats that are in store not only for poor doomed Larry, but for the United States and perhaps Judaism itself.

Apart from this stunning departing scene, though, I hate to say it but there’s not a lot going for A Serious Man. There is too much to unravel, and not enough incentive to make the effort.

Why, for instance, the musical fixation on The Jefferson Airplane? They were one of the great bands of the era, and the songs that feature in the movie are from their Surrealistic Pillow album, one of a proliferation of seminal musical statements of the time (1967 has been identified as marking the peak of 60s rock – a view I share). But the Airplane are hardly definitively emblematic of 1967 counterculture.

They were subversives, though, and perhaps this is the key. For A Serious Man is nothing if not subversive – subversive in its undermining of narrative convention, and subversive in its depiction of Judaism in practice. One example of many is the revered Third Rabbi’s only counsel to Larry’s son Danny, after he’s struggled through his bar mitzvah stoned out of his gourd. The rabbi merely quotes lines from the Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody To Love:

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies…
Don’t you want somebody to love?

And yet, even this sense of subversion that pervades the movie is subverted! For all their irreverence, there is a suggestion of affection in the Coen’s treatment of the Jewish rituals and the life of this Midwest suburban community (which, it may be safely assumed, is broadly reflective of their own formative years in a similar locale).

I think the Coens have tripped up on their own cleverness this time, impressing themselves but leaving their audience out in the cold. There are signs of a dangerous hubris here. I hope they have not bought into the myth that has built around them. Artistically, that is the kiss of death.

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6 thoughts on “A Serious Man movie review”

  1. Thanks for the review. I was also there on Saturday. The story at the beginning was there, I thought, to place Judaism in the context of its traditions and paradoxes: a non-mystical religion that yet has dybbuks and gollums! It did indeed set the scene for poor Larry’s futile quest for understanding – there’s no purchase to be got in this culture where the wise ones cheerfully chew over the problem, and finally shrug. A line from a pop song is as close as you’re going to get to an answer, apparently.
    I thought it was a great and affectionate portrait of a culture that feels its insularity and responds with blithe anti-Gentilism (“What happened to the goy?”).
    I wasn’t bored once!

  2. Hi Karen, and thanks for your comments.

    Your reading of the function of the prologue makes sense and is about as worthy a take as I’ve seen. How do you think it sets the scene for Larry’s quest for understanding, though? I’m not with you on that – as in, I don’t understand your point. Would be interested in your clarification.

    Yes, there is a sort of affection there in da boys’ portrait of Jewish culture as it has evolved in the Midwest, but there’s some pretty cynical stuff going on too, and some irreverence and iconoclastic tendencies that are far from affectionate IMO. That’s one of my problems with the movie – the attitudes coming through are all over the place, verging on schizoid! I would contend that this is one of several ways in which this movie lacks unity – and for me, that’s a serious shortcoming.

    Whatever, it’s refreshing to encounter a comment from someone who hasn’t posted here before – especially one so well articulated. Great that you don’t share my experience of the movie, too! There’s no useful discourse and no learning without challenges to one’s views.


  3. Sets the scene in that it is illogical and unresolved. Was the old man a dybbuk? Was the wife right to take the action she did? Was the trusting husband our model for humanity, or was he a schlemiel?? Who knows? The tale of the goy’s teeth is the same. This schizoid stuff is embedded in Judaism and probably part of why the Coens have moved away from it – but you have to admit it can be funny. “Cultural” Jews generally accept it – the Coens depiction I think allows for all reactions from wry head-nodding to laughter to outright revulsion.
    Hey, one other thing – I didn’t think the kid was stoned at his bar mitzvah. I thought he was just scared witless (like his friend in the congregation!); but the moment of clarity and strength he found when reading his portion honoured the ritual.

  4. I don’t agree that the fable was “illogical and unresolved.” It had as much logic as any fable or supernatural tale, and as far as I was concerned, although we never learned the outcome, I didn’t have the sense that it was unresolved. Rather, I was expecting an echo from the prologue in the narrative proper (which would have been resolution enough, since the fable section would have served its function as a prologue!). There was no echo – not that arrived as far as me, anyway.

    Actually, I was just reading through the media notes, and found the following quotes from the bros themselves, which are pertinent to our discussion:

    Ethan (referring to the prologue): “We thought a little self-contained story would be an appropriate introduction for this movie. Since we didn’t know any suitable Yiddish folk tales, we made one up.”

    Joel: “It [the prologue] doesn’t have any relationship to what follows, but it helped us get started thinking about the movie.”

    These extra-movie comments from the writer/directors appear to support my side of our discussion, but of course, do not invalidate your contentions, since the movie lives a life of its own outside any extra-textual content and in so doing surrenders the right to interpretation to its viewers.

    I do think we all have a natural tendency to find meaning, purpose and coherence in any art whether it’s there as an express intention of the creator(s) or not, and I think this tendency is stronger when we rate the artist(s) highly. I reckon the Coens have gotten flabby in this one, though, for the reasons outlined in my review.

    As for the kid at his bar mitzvah – well, we can’t really know for sure whether he was stoned or whacked out through sheer anxiety, can we?

    I can only tell you where my perception derives from. ie: He’s depicted as an emerging stoner throughout the movie, and seems less than reverent in his attitude towards his bar mitzvah in the weeks leading up to it. His dislocation from the ceremony as it is shot in the movie certainly rings true of a cannabis-altered state, but you could be right also. Whatever, I do share your view that he ends up finding his way back to honouring the ritual.

    Good discussion!

  5. Yes, good discussion!
    I think the bros’ remarks about the introductory fable are either illogical or disingenuous: they say they didn’t know any “suitable” Yiddish folk tales, so they made one up that they say “doesn’t have any relationship to what follows”. Guys, guys! Make up your minds!
    They are so close to this material that they are simultaneously the best and worst observers and interpreters.
    “Less than reverent”?? Hey, the kid studies! Give him a break!
    I look forward to your next review.


  6. Yeah, fair point about the writers’ lack of distance.

    Something that occurred to me after re-reading through this thread – I have only a very basic understanding of the practice of Judaism, and the attendant rituals (almost all gleaned from a Jewish sharemate who became a close friend…we’ve now sort of lost contact, unfortunately…anyway…). It sounds like you are much more au fait by contrast. I wonder if this partly accounts for our differences in perception re the movie? I intended to mention in my review that I felt kind of disadvantaged during the screening due to not having a better understanding of Judaism, but in the end it slipped my mind.


    PS: BTW, there’s areview over at The Vine that I found hilarious. You might like to take the guy on…although I left a comment and he didn’t get back. Maybe it’s not cool to engage with yer readership on that tres hip site. Hate that.

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